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       Fire Pony, p.1

           Rodman Philbrick
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Fire Pony

  For everybody who’s ever been thrown from a horse and got back on.


  Title Page


  1: Catch a Sight of Heaven

  2: The Bar None, Everybody Welcome

  3: Showdown Says Hello

  4: Here Comes Trouble

  5: Joe Dilly Thinks It Over

  6: Rodeo Quality

  7: The Born Rider

  8: One Fine Morning Lady Luck Arrives

  9: What Joe Dilly Sees in the Fire

  10: Sacking the Sugar Beast

  11: What the Grizzly Bear Said After I Fell Asleep

  12: We’re in High Cactus Now

  13: Just Say Geronimo

  14: Lady or the Tiger

  15: Crazy as a Cougar

  16: The Fever Poultice

  17: Joe Won’t Go

  18: A Proper Tent

  19: Mr. Jessup Gets a Haircut

  20: The Crazy Wind Keeps Roaring

  21: Finger-Pointing

  22: Go, Lady, Go

  23: Joe Dilly Stayed Too Long at the Fair

  24: The Sparks Fly Up Like Birds on Fire

  25: The Fire Pony

  26: As Good a Man as Any and Better than Most

  About the Author


  Also by Rodman Philbrick


  We’re out ahead!

  And then the shadows come up from behind and there’s pounding horses all around us and I can hear the riders panting like they were horses, and the horses are wheezing like people.

  I shake the reins and yell for Lady to go faster and she does. She’s stretched out like a bird skimming up from the water and for a little while we pull clear ahead again, and I can see the blur of faces in the grandstands. I can’t hear nothing, though — it’s like I got mufflers on my ears and all I can hear is the blood pounding in my head.

  Then — wham! — something hits me from behind and I start to fall. I catch a glimpse of this mean grinning face — Mullins! — he’s banged his horse into Lady and yanked me loose from the saddle!

  I’m slipping down sideways and I’m backward dizzy, but my sleeve catches on the horn of the saddle and my left foot is stuck in the stirrup and I’m hanging on for dear life. Lady can see me and feel where I am and I can tell she wants to stop so I don’t get hurt, but I’m so mad at Mullins I’d rather get run over than quit.

  “Go!” I’m saying to her with my arms around her neck. She’s watching me talk to her and she hears me. “Go! Go! Go!”

  “We’ll just keep moving,” Joe Dilly says to me. “Pick up a job here and there. Anybody looks at us cross-eyed, we hit the road. You with me on this, little brother?”

  I go, “Sure, Joe, I’m with you,” even though inside I’m still pretty worried about all the bad stuff catching up.

  We’re coming down from the high mountains in that old Ford pickup truck with the camper back, and Joe’s whistling and tapping his hands on the wheel, like he don’t care if the cops want to talk to him about that fire back in Montana.

  “Look around,” he says, pointing out the window. “It’ll help put your mind at ease.”

  He’s right. It’s hard to stay worried when every turn in the road there’s something brand-new to look at. Trees so high you can’t see the tops, and sometimes these open pastures that roll right on down to the edge of the world.

  All of a sudden — bang! — that old right front tire blows out like a gunshot and I’m hanging on for dear life with the truck bucking and heaving like an unbroke horse. And Joe Dilly, well, you never heard nobody can curse like Joe Dilly when he’s in the mood.

  He finally manages to wrestle the truck over to the side of the road, near this thick stand of tall trees, and you can tell how the mountain drops away real steep right under those trees.

  “Just step aside,” Joe Dilly says, rubbing his hands together. Like he’s almost happy that tire blew, like it was an adventure he’d planned on having, for the fun of it. He’s going, “Make way for Mr. Fix-It,” and “Okay, partner, just you watch while I make this little old truck levitate,” the way he always talks to himself when he’s working.

  Pretty soon he’s got the truck jacked up and the bad tire is lying there like a chunk of roadkill, and I’m kind of wandering along by the edge of the road, looking to catch a peek at whatever critters are hiding in the dark shadowy places under those tall trees.

  “Hey, Joe!” I go. “Are there mountain lions round here?”

  He looks up from where he’s spinning the tire wrench. “Mountain lions?” he says. “You bet your bottom dollar, sports fans! This here is mountain lion country.”

  “You ever shoot a lion, Joe?”

  He gives me that flinty, squinty look of his, and then he winks quick and goes, “Nah. Saw one once, coming over the ridge.”

  “What’d you do?”

  “Ran like a man on fire,” he says, and then he’s back whistling and working.

  I keep following along the side of the road and suddenly there’s this gap in the trees and you can see all the way down the mountain into this big, golden valley.

  Something about that valley, the way it seems all glowy and filled with light, it makes my heart thump hard against my ribs. It’s almost as if I’m afraid to take another breath or blink my eyes or it’ll be like something you see in a dream, something really special that fades away as soon as you wake up, and then you can’t remember why it was so important.

  I sing out, “Joe! Come here and look at this!”

  “Whatcha got, a big old lion? Probably a tree stump looks like a lion.”

  “I catched a sight of heaven, Joe!”

  Which gets his attention. Before I know it, Joe Dilly is standing right behind me, looking over the top of my head, and his voice changes and gets real quiet.

  “I’ll be darned,” he says. “And look there, off to the south. I spy a ranch.”

  “I can’t see it,” I say.


  He points far off, and now I can see the glinting where the sunlight hits off the metal roofs. There’s a lot of barns and outbuildings, and a bigger, sprawling place must be the main ranch house. And you can see dark little speckles moving over the floor of the valley, if you look hard enough.

  “Horses, Joe. I see horses.”

  “Yep,” says Joe. “Horses.”

  The way he says it, you know that horses are his favorite kind of critters, and that includes most people.

  “Can we go there, Joe?” I say. “You think we’re far enough from Montana?”

  I’m hoping maybe this time things will work out. That’s when I feel both his hands on my shoulders, and Joe gives me a little squeeze. He says, “Tell you what, Roy. We’ll give her a look. We can do that much.”

  “It sure is pretty,” I say.

  He’s quiet for a minute and then he goes, “Lots of things look pretty from this far off.”

  Joe says it’s bad luck to drive onto a place before we’ve been properly welcomed, so he parks the truck outside the gate and we walk in on our own steam.

  The first thing I notice is this big old sign that hangs over the entrance. It says THE BAR NONE, and under it is this other sign that says “Everybody Welcome.”

  “The Bar None,” I say. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Some kind of joke, I guess,” Joe says. “People put the funniest names on ranches sometimes. Before I come to get you, I worked this place once in Arizona called itself ‘Egg Ranch.’ Well, I asked ’em what did they raise, was it horses or eggs? And it turns out the man owned the place, his real name was Egg.”

  “You’re pullin’ my leg,” I say.

  “I swear,” says Joe Dilly. “Thomas Egg, that was his name.

  You never know with Joe, not from his face — it could be the real truth, or he’s having fun.

  When he first showed up and took me away from that crummy foster home, I believed everything he said. I’d always pretended my big half brother Joe was gonna come and rescue me, and then he did. Once he told me the world was flat and we’d fall off the other side if we didn’t have Super Glue on our feet, and I believed him. Another time he said if you fart and sneeze at exactly the same instant, you’ll explode, and I believed that, too.

  I was littler then, that’s my excuse, but pretty soon I figured out that with Joe Dilly you have to take everything he says with a dose of salts, or catch him winking, because he will try to fool you now and then. So maybe there really is a guy named Thomas Egg and maybe there ain’t.

  Anyhow, like I say, we’re walking up that long driveway on our own steam, it must be near a mile from where we left the truck to the first stable, that’s the scale of things at the Bar None. Just the two of us kicking up dust, and the smell of horses in the air, which ain’t a bad smell.

  We don’t know what’s waiting for us at the end of the road, but somehow I’ve got this feeling it’ll be okay.

  The first person we see is this Mexican-looking guy about Joe’s age, he’s leaning on the fence rail watching these horses trot round and round inside this big corral. They’re all Arabians, so beautiful and silky the way they move it makes you feel out of breath just watching.

  The Mexican, he gives us a little wave with his hat and Joe goes over to him and says, “That sign of yours mean what it says?”

  “I guess,” says the Mexican. His eyes are jumping from Joe to me. He looks pretty friendly, but you can tell he’s not ready to make up his mind about us, one way or the other.

  “Everybody welcome,” Joe says.

  “That’s what it says, all right. Mr. Jessup, he put that up himself.”

  Joe nods. “Uh huh. I take it Mr. Jessup is the owner.”

  “Yep,” says the Mexican. “He’s the owner and I’m the foreman. What can I do for you?”

  “Nothin’ special,” says Joe. He reaches out and gives my head a rub for luck like he does. “Got any horses need shoeing, or their hoofs trimmed, I’m your man.”

  “Oh?” You can tell the way he says it the Mexican ain’t interested, but he stays polite. “Sorry, there’s already a fella takes care of that.” He squints at me and I can see where he’d like to smile, but he’s holding back. “Now, you care to stay for lunch, we put on a real good feed.”

  Joe Dilly’s smiling in a way that’ll make you nervous, if you dare look him in the eye. “We ain’t looking for no handout,” he says, his voice getting real cool and flat. “I’m the best damn shoer that ever fit an iron to a hoof.”

  “I don’t doubt it,” the Mexican says. “But Mr. Jessup does all the hiring, and he’s gone for a spell. Won’t be back for a week or more.”

  Joe Dilly takes a deep breath and then he stands a little closer and says, “There a horse nobody can get near? I mean a real spooked animal won’t be touched. The kind of outlaw horse will kick any man tries to get close. You got an animal like that, by any chance?”

  The Mexican shrugs. “Sure we do,” he says. “Bound to, on a spread this big.”

  Joe goes, “There’s never been a horse born I couldn’t turn.” Then he says, “Tell you what. If I can fix the baddest animal you got, we’ll take a meal with you and call it even.”

  “No need for that,” says the Mexican.

  “That’s the deal,” says Joe Dilly, and the way he says it, you know that’s final.

  The Mexican, he looks at the both of us, and after a while he nods. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s see what you can do with Showdown.”

  I wait there with the Mexican while Joe goes back to fetch the truck. The Mexican turns out to be a real nice guy — his name is Rick Valdez, and he’s not from Mexico at all.

  “I was born right here on the Bar None,” he tells me, “only that was before Mr. Jessup bought the place.”

  “I sure like to watch them Arabians,” I say.

  “Yep, I noticed that,” Rick says, and when he smiles you never saw teeth so white. “Is that your dad?” he asks, looking out where Joe Dilly has walked off.

  I tell Rick that Joe’s my big brother, we had the same mother but different fathers, and Rick says, real casual, “Is that so? Where you boys from? Not these parts, I guess.”

  “Oh, we’re from all over,” I say, which is exactly what Joe tells me to say, if anybody asks, because you never know what might be catching up on us.

  “All over,” says Rick.

  “Here and there.” I point quick to a high-stepping Arabian that’s sauntering by, showing off how light and fine she is. “Sure is a pretty horse,” I say.

  “We’ve got about two hundred more that’s just as pretty,” Rick says. “So your big brother, he looks after you, is that it?”

  I smile and nod, but really I’d rather just watch them Arabians on parade, because Joe takes a nervous fit whenever anybody gets to asking a lot of personal-type questions. And Rick, he backs off and talks about the weather and the horses and stuff, and I ask him how many mountain lions he’s seen and he tells me he’s never seen one at all, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t up there.

  “They blend in,” he says. “You think it’s a yellow rock, but really it’s a cougar keeping still. That’s what we call ’em in these parts, cougars.”

  “What about grizzly?” I ask. “Could a grizzly beat a mountain lion? I mean a cougar?”

  “Now that would be a fight,” he says. “Bear is bigger but the cat might be quicker. Let me think on that.”

  Before Rick can tell me any more about bears and mountain lions, Joe comes back with the truck and he’s all business, rubbing his hands together and smiling with just his teeth. “Showdown,” he says. “Ain’t that a card game?”

  “He’s no game,” says Rick, leading the way. “I want you to be real careful. Mr. Jessup hears somebody got busted up by a horse that belongs to him, he won’t be happy.”

  “I’ll be careful,” Joe says. “I’m the carefullest man alive.” And he’s winking at me, because if they had a contest for the least carefullest man alive, Joe Dilly would win, hands down.

  What happens next is Joe backs up to one of the big stable buildings, and he sets out his portable forge, where he can heat up the irons and bend ’em to fit perfect. We’re getting low on propane, but Joe guesses there’s enough left for one more job.

  Rick the foreman, he’s standing there watching, and when Joe has the forge hot enough to work, he says, “You get a shoe on Showdown and you’ll be the first. Last man got in the stall with that horse, it was all we could do to get him out alive.”

  “Don’t worry about that,” Joe says. “You gonna show me this killer horse, or what?”

  “It’s your funeral,” Rick says. He forces a laugh but you can tell he’s worried.

  Joe, he’s whistling and grinning and you’d think he was cooking up breakfast, not iron horseshoes for some critter that might be crazy enough to kill him if he’s not real careful. I make like I’m not nervous, but it’s a fib, really, because my stomach is all clenched up and my face hurts from pretending to smile.

  Joe Dilly, he follows Rick into the stable and I hang back a ways, like they told me. It’s pretty dark inside, until your eyes get used to it, and the smell of hay and oats and horses and leather fills up the air. It’s a fresh smell, though, so you know there’s a whole lot of spit polish and elbow grease goes into keeping these stables mucked out.

  “Mr. Jessup figured Showdown would be a project,” Rick says, “but it ain’t worked out. Sometimes you get bad blood in a Thoroughbred and there’s nothing you can do to fix it. Most owners would have had him put down, or shipped off, but not Mr. Jessup, he can’t stand to put a horse down, even if it’s for the best.”

  The way he says that, it makes me like Mr. Jessup, even though I n
ever seen him.

  I’m starting to see better in the soft, dim light, and I can tell where we’re headed. There’s a box stall off to the side, away from the others. The steel gate has a good-sized bar across it instead of just a latch, and the gate is all pushed out from the inside, where it’s been kicked. The horse in there, he’s backed up in the shadows like he don’t want to be looked at. Or maybe because he wants a running start at that gate.

  “Say hello, Showdown,” Rick says.

  That sets him off and the next thing you know — wham! — a hoof smashes the gate about head high — and there’s Showdown, with his black eyes blazing like crazy marbles and his nostrils flaring like his tail’s on fire. He’s showing us the whites of his eyes, and all of his teeth, and the first thing I figure, you give an apple to that horse, he’ll take your whole hand.

  “No halter on him,” Joe says. “He keep tearing it off, does he?”

  “We about gave up on a halter,” Rick says. “He’d get to rubbing his head against the stall till he drew blood, or wore out the leather, and that’s no good.”

  “Okay,” Joe says. “You two back off, give us some breathing room. Me and Showdown are going to have a little talk.”

  “I don’t know about that,” Rick says.

  “We’ll be fine,” Joe says, and he won’t take no for an answer.

  So me and Rick wander over to the other side of the barn where the light comes pouring in and you can see all those fine Arabians frolicking around in the corral like they’re having a party. Sometimes you get the impression them Arabians are more like dogs than horses, they’re so playful and friendly, and so tolerant of human people.

  “Your brother really know what he’s doing?” Rick asks me, keeping his voice low. “It’s not worth getting hurt just to prove a point.”

  “He’s real good,” I say.

  “I sure hope so,” Rick says, but he’s talking to himself, not to me.

  I’m worried but not too worried, because Joe Dilly’s never been hurt bad by a horse, not on purpose. On the other hand, you never know, do you?

  Rick and me are leaning in the barn door, not saying a lot, and we’ve got our ears cocked, but it’s real quiet; all you can hear is the murmur of Joe Dilly’s voice, sounds like soft water in a shallow stream, and if you keep listening you’ll start to drift off, it makes you feel calm and good.

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